What strikes me about the ’10 year’ prison strategy just published by MoJ:
10 years is fantasy. 3 would be remarkable
When I was responsible for strategic planning in HMPS, Martin Narey would sardonically remind me how short the timespans really were. Suppose a 10 year strategy had been issued in 2010. Since then we have had a Coalition, 3 Tory PMs (and a lurch from centre right to far right), 8 Justice Secretaries averaging a little over a year in post, and 3 game changing external events, austerity, COVID and allegedly recovery. Our political system assumes that new Ministers, even if of the same party, will start completely afresh, and there hasn’t been much common ground between Clarke’s aims of reducing imprisonment and incrementally increasing competition for prison, Grayling cancelling prison competition but botching massive big bang privatisation of probation and forcing through deep, deep cuts, the various announcements mid decade of massive new building programmes that then failed to happen, COVID lockdown and now this.
In less than 3 years, there must be a General Election, and currently there’s every chance we’ll have a new PM well before then (and new PM’s never leave their Cabinet untouched). Raab is known not to feel MoJ is in line with his ambitions. And so on.
That said the approach of detailed planning for 2 years only and general objectives beyond that seems the best we can do, within the confines of a political system incapable of sustained policy.
Dodging the big strategic issues
If you’re going to have a 10 year strategy, though, one could expect it to include the big issues. And some of the biggest and most obvious challenges the prison service faces are airbrushed out of this strategy altogether. For example:
Some linkage across CJS but not on fundamentals
The strategy takes account of the impact on prisons of recruiting 20, 000 police - having just sacked 20, 000 police, BTW, but hey ho – because it has to, the numbers are so big. But there isn’t the slightest awareness of the operation of the CJS system as a whole system, designed to achieve certain ends. For example:
The lack of much new
Almost everything in here has already been tried before. I went through keeping a note of anything I thought might be really new (as opposed to existing ideas given wider application, or re-labelled). It’s a short list. For example, ‘fast track’ adjudications (though the small print says, only where the prisoner has already admitted culpability); or avoiding Friday releases in certain cases by releasing early; or greater awareness of neuro-diversity. No doubt good stuff, but emphatically not game changing.
Again and again in the documents, anyone with any background in prisons would recognise old favourites, for example greater autonomy for Governors BUT also league tables and KPIs, where is Derek Lewis now? It’s cringe making stuff. A lot of it has been announced by half a dozen different Justice Secretaries before Raab.
And despite the well known penchant of Ministers for anything shiny that beeps – 5 references to ‘cutting edge’ innovation (thankfully not for suicide prevention!) and 32 admiring references to technology in general – I don’t see anything likely to be transformative here.
Nothing wrong with that, necessarily. Innovation for the sake of it, that isn’t useful, isn’t to be encouraged. But, if nothing much changes in what you do, why now expect a different result?
Lack of awareness of or learning from the past
This I think is the most depressing thing. As Churchill remarked “those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it”. (Indeed, reflection on the past used to be a defining characteristic of real Toryism). But there is simply no recognition here that the past exists, let along learning from it. (BTW, the same is true of every minister I can recall.)
For example. I played a minor role in New Labour’s extensive (and expensive) programme to reduce reoffending by prisoners, based on the latest evidence of ‘what works’ in offending. No one, Labour or Tory, has ever shown the least interest in examining what that programme achieved, which was marginal, and why it didn’t achieve more. No one, ever (though I had a go here). Without exception, every new Justice Secretary announces that reoffending rates are too high, as though they are the first to notice it. They never inquire about what was done before. If they did, they might possibly find out why rates are still high. Or even accept that they cant change them much.
As I said in my very first blog, here, prison and justice ministers, and most of the media, are in the grip of a penological version of that terrible affliction, Korsakoff’s syndrome, where a brain damaged patient cannot recall the past, and cannot form new memories, but exists only in an eternal present. It is pathological.
There’s no real promise here of a better prison system.
Just a much bigger one.
I was formerly Finance Director of the Prison Service and then Director of the National Offender Management Service responsible for competition. I also worked in the NHS and an IT company. I later worked for two outsourcing companies.
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